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Biography & Autobiography Political

Undiplomatic Diaries


by (author) Charles Ritchie

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2008
Political, General, Diaries & Journals
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
    List Price

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With an Introduction by Allan Gotlieb
One of Canada’s most distinguished diplomats, Charles Ritchie was also a born diarist. Now, for the first time, Ritchie’s diplomatic diaries are collected in one complete volume, covering his entire career in the Canadian Foreign Service. Ritchie creates a startlingly vivid and perceptive portrait of daily life at the centre of major historical events, including one of the finest accounts of the London Blitz ever written — the people in the parks, the shabby streets, the heightened love affairs. Ritchie’s life was a whirl of high-society engagements, and he turns his dry wit and irreverence to the social scene. Evocative and compelling, these diaries beautifully portray a forgotten era.

About the author

Charles Ritchie is a Fitzhenry and Whiteside author.

Charles Ritchie's profile page

Excerpt: Undiplomatic Diaries: 1937-1971 (by (author) Charles Ritchie)

6 November 1940.
Things one will forget when this is over — fumbling in the dark of the blackout for one’s front door key while bits of shrapnel fall on the pavement beside one — the way the shrapnel seems to drift — almost like snow-flakes through the air in an aimless, leisurely way, and the clink of it landing on the pavement.

16 November 1940.
I came back from spending the night at Aldershot to find my flat a heap of rubble from a direct hit, and I have lost everything I own. That is no tragedy but a bore — and doubtless a cash loss, as the Department of External Affairs will never approve replacing suits from Sackville Street at twenty pounds per suit. I am most annoyed at losing my new “woodsy” tweed suit, the picture of the Rose that Anne gave me, volume two of the book I am reading, my edition of Rimbaud, and the little green book of my own chosen quotations. I do not much regret all the pigskin which used to jar on her so much.

I am enjoying the publicity attendant on this disaster, particularly the idea which I have put abroad that if it had not been for a chance decision to go to Aldershot for the night I should have been killed. I should probably only have been cut about or bruised. The rest of the people living in the flats were in the cellar and escaped unhurt. Hart and I went to see the ruins, and the youth next door was full of the fact that Lord A and Lady A too had had to be pulled out of the débris — so had fourteen other people, but what struck him was that even a lord had not been spared by the bomb. A further fascinating detail was that Lord A’s naval uniform was still hanging on the hook on the open surviving wall for all the world to see. Now I know that the Evening Standard is right when it prints those items “Baronet’s kinswoman in a bus smash” etc.

I feel like a tramp having only one suit and shirt and in particular only one pair of shoes.

Last week when I wrote this diary I was sitting on my sofa in front of my electric fire in my perfectly real and solid flat with my books at arm’s length — the furniture had that false air of permanence which chairs and tables take on so readily — the drawn curtains shut out the weather. Now all that is a pile of dirty rubble, with bits of my suits, wet and blackened, visible among the bricks.

On top of the pile my sofa is perched (quite the most uncomfortable and useless article in the flat but it has survived) — this violent, meaningless gesture like a slap from a drunken giant has smashed my shell of living into a heap.

17 November 1940. Dorchester Hotel.
It certainly feels safe in this enormous hotel. I simply cannot believe that bombs would dare to penetrate this privileged enclosure or that they could touch all these rich people. Cabinet Ministers and Jewish lords are not killed in air-raids — that is the inevitable illusion that this place creates. It is a fortress propped up with money-bags. Itwill be an effort to go back to an ordinary house which can be blotted out by one bomb.

I went for a walk in the park with my ballerina. I am trying to talk her into coming to live with me, but am getting nowhere. She says her brothers back in Portland always told her it cheapened a girl in a man’s eyes — he never would want to marry a girl who had done that. We walked round and round the equestrian statue of William of Orange in St. James’s Square arguing the point until an elderly gentleman called out to us, “I do not want to interrupt you but I feel I should tell you, just in case you did not notice, that there is a police warning on the railings saying that there is an unexploded bomb in the garden!”

17 November 1940.
The ballerina is ridiculous, but I must not begin to think that she is pathetic because she is really very well able to look after herself, and what is more she has succeeded in making me a little bit in love with her.

18 November 1940.
I could have strangled her today while she was eating her chocolate cake, but I was so disagreeable that I do not think she enjoyed it much. Poor little devil — I am sorry for her. She looked so gay and pretty today with her little coloured umbrella in the rainy after luncheon Jermyn Street. It is rather touching the way she sticks to her American small-town gods in the midst of this London. When I first knew her only a few weeks ago she was excited at being taken to a smart restaurant. Now she thinks it fashionable to complain — “The smoked-salmon here is not as good as at the Ritz” — “I like the way they pull the table out for you here” (if the waiter has not pulled the table aside for her to pass).

27 November 1940.
I am living at Brooks’s Club, a combination of discomfort and old-fashioned comfort. Magnificent coal fires in the living-rooms, icy bedrooms, the kind of confidential valeting that you get in a good country house, the superb bath towels, yards of them, impossible to manoeuvre — the only thing to do is to wrap yourself up in one and sit down until you dry.

As I write I hear the ever-menacing throb of a bomber coming out of the fog. Tonight there is an old-fashioned London fog. Fumbling my way along Piccadilly I could hardly — as they say — “see my hand before me.” I hear the hall porter saying in a grieved tone, “There is no air-raid warning gone.” This is one of the nights when I feel interested in life, when I should much resent a bomb removing me from the scene. There are other nights when I feel it could not matter less.

Came back last night in the tube from Earl’s Court. I hear that the drunks quite often fight it out by throwing each other on to the live wire, which contrary to superstition does not always kill you. If the toughs in the shelter tube do not like a chap they wait for him and throw him on to the wire. I must say that I saw nothing of this — just people sleeping, and not the poorest of the poor. They were all fully dressed and looked clean and quite prosperous, some pretty girls who might be serving in a big store, quite a lot of men and children. I have never seen so many different ages and types of people asleep before. Their sprawled attitudes, arms flung out, etc. made me think of photographs of the dead in battlefields — their stark and simplified faces. What one misses in the sleeping and the dead are the facial posturings prompted by perpetual vanity.

I am off the ballerina — she is rude to waiters who cannot answer back.

Editorial Reviews

“If Canada had produced no other writer of note, Charles Ritchie the diarist, alone, could establish our literary presence.” —Maclean’s
“One of the best diarists who has ever touched pen to paper.” —Toronto Star
“In Ritchie, Canada has found its very own Pepys.” — Hamilton Spectator
“Distilled delight.” — The Guardian

“Relish the graceful, faultless prose of a superior stylist.” — Jane Urquhart

“There have not been many diarists in the world who have been in his league. His diaries are engaging, witty, insightful, and altogether irresistible.” — Globe and Mail

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